SACO – School board members in odd-numbered wards are up for re-election this term.

In Ward 1, incumbent school board member Garrett Abrahamson is running unopposed. In Ward 3, School Board Member Edna Ben-Ami is running against Emily Walters. In Ward 5, current School Board Member Michel Ohayon is running against former city councilor Arthur Tardif. Current Ward 7 School Board Member Beth Johnston is running against Christina Michaud.

School board candidates fielded questions prepared by local education foundation Saco STEAM at a candidate’s forum on Thursday night at City Hall. The forum was televised on local public access and can be viewed at www.townhallstreams.com.

Ward 1:
• Abrahamson said it’s been an honor serving on the school board and being a voice for education in his ward.
He said reviewing the school facilities and exploring possible new construction is one of the school board’s top priorities in the upcoming term.

Abrahamson said the school board must also look on a broader level and become informed of possible state mandates that could impact the local school district so that it can weigh in on decisions made at the state level.

Ward 3:

• Walters said in her job as a director of the public health program “Let’s Go!” she has honed skills in the areas of strategic planning, budget management and community relationship building.

“I have a love for my community and was really looking for an opportunity to do more for my community and with my skill set its an ideal fit for the school board,” said Waters

Walters said while she recognizes the importance of a healthy and strong environment and school construction, the most important item when supporting local education is supporting the staff, which is the department’s biggest asset. She said is a parent of two children in the local school system. she her son who has struggled over the years academically, and though he did not qualify for special education programs, he has had an incredible amount of support from his teachers and school staff.

Walters said she would love to see a stronger engagement between the schools and parents or caregivers and she would like to see the schools strive toward higher educational outcomes.

• Ben-Ami was not present at the forum, but responded to a media request by email.

“ I have been on the school board for the past 5 years and have gained the experience needed to provide our students with a world class education. This is my passion and my goal,” said Ben-Ami.
Ben-Ami said the top three issues facing the school board in the next term are new school construction, developing a budget that provides students with the best education possible while keeping costs down and recruiting and retaining the best staff in the district to serve the city’s students.

Ward 5:

• Tardif was a member of the Saco City Council for 23 ½ years. He said he came on to the council at a time when people weren’t getting along so well, but the council grew into a relationship where they could “agree to disagree” and have discussions without fighting. He said he’s heard there have been problems with the relationship between the school board and the city council and he would like to improve relations between the two boards.

Tardif said one of the top issues the school board is facing is whether it should build a new school and where should it be located.
“Those are big decisions that have to be made. It’s got to be looked at closely before you do it,” he said.

Tardif said there are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about new school construction, such as how would the location impact the traffic on North Street and what parents would think if their local elementary school was replaced with a school that was further away from their home.

Tardif said he sees school buses driving through the city that are only half full. He thinks the school department needs to review the school bus schedule and see if there’s a more efficient way to operate the bus system.

Tardif said he thinks the school board need to look over the budget very carefully to make sure students’ needs are met and there is no over spending. He said the school department shouldn’t have to create a slush fund, as it can ask the city council for money if it has an non-budgeted emergency expenditure.

• Ohayon was not at the forum, but he responded to a media request by email.

Ohayon said his institutional knowledge makes him the best candidate for the seat.

“I have been on and off the school board for the past 11 years. I have learned a lot and feel that I am seasoned to what works and what doesn’t work in the school district,” he said.
Ohayon said new school construction is one of the top three issues facing the school board.
The school board also must follow through with implementing the district’s strategic plan and assess the plan’s successes and challenges.
The school board needs to be “Recruiting, retaining and rewarding” the best staff to provide education to the city’s students.

Ward 7

• Johnston, who had four children go through the Saco school system and now has a grandchild in the school system, said she is running for the school board for the same reason she did when she began 12 years ago. She said she strongly believes education betters people’s lives and she want to continue her work on the school board, helping to provide the best education possible for the city’s children.

“I still have enthusiasm after 12 years. I think I have a lot of institutional knowledge after 12 years,” said Johnston.

Johnston said education is an ongoing process, and the board needs to continue on the path it’s going on but take time to re-evaluate when necessary. The strategic plan is important but it’s not something set in stone, and should re-evaluated and altered as time goes on, she said.

She said future school construction is an important item facing the school board.

Johnston said she believes the school department needs to create a budget that is fiscally responsible to tax payers and provides an education that meets the needs of the students. She said the current school budget as well as past budgets need to be re-evaluated. She said there needs to be an audit to determine if there are any expenditures that are no longer an efficient use of the department’s money.

Johnston said she would like to see the newly established pre-kindergarten program expanded so that it’s every child can enroll.

• Michaud said as a project manager at IDEXX Laboratories conducting medical outreach she assists in planning educational events and she also has a background in the field of education. She also has two children in the school system.

She said with her background in project management would help make her a good candidate for school board. She said the school board needs to look at the stake holders in education and channels for community engagement make the community more aware of the great work being done in the schools, support the educators and get parents

“What I want to bring to the school board is (better) communication with our parents and with our community to gain greater engagement,” she said. More involved parents means better student performance, she said.

Michaud said she would like to see ways for virtual participation for residents in school board meetings, so parents who can’t attend meeting can interact while watching the meetings at home.

Michaud said when discussing possible school construction, the school board needs to not only consider the crumbling infrastructure, but other factors such as a potentially increasing population in the city.

She said when thinking about creating a new school building, the school board needs to “look longer term” when making decisions to make sure the infrastructure can support the technology of the future.

She said she would also like to see the district continue programs in STEM programs. She said she would like to see a local chapter of Future Business Leaders of America. She said it gives the opportunity for students to learn skills such as balancing a budget and running a community service campaign. She said if students can be provided a logical “real life” context when being taught new skills, students will better retain the information.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 780-9015 or [email protected]

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